By Jehan Perera –
Three Easters have passed since the fateful Easter in 2019 which plunged the entire country into shock and terror of a kind not seen even during the three-decade long war. The synchronized attack by a team of 10 suicide bombers took the lives of 272 persons and injured another 500 or more in a total of six simultaneous attacks- on three churches and three luxury hotels. The victims included entire families, parents with their children and also foreigners who had come to enjoy the warmth of Sri Lanka. The country virtually shut down for two months during which time people were living on rumours and afraid to venture into crowded areas. There was no logic in the attack in which one minority religious group targeted another minority religious group with whom there had been no prior local history of conflict. The Easter bombing undid all the reconciliation work that had been done since the war ended a decade earlier.
Amidst the chaos and speculations in the aftermath of the bombings, it was noted that some opposition politicians had not shown the same fear that gripped the rest of the country. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, then in the opposition, was one of the first at the scene of carnage giving comfort to the victims. Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then an aspiring candidate for the presidency, immediately put himself forward as the most suitable candidate to contest from the opposition. He promised to save the nation in the way he had done by eliminating the LTTE a decade earlier and evoked a responsive chord in the terror-struck people who voted him to be president by a large majority.
The investigations by governments under three successive presidents, however, have not disclosed the truth of who was behind the attacks. The best that has been done so far, has been by the Supreme Court. This followed a Fundamental Rights case filed by the Catholic Church and other citizens as no proper investigations were initiated by the government to provide legal redress. Having perused the investigation reports, it found former President Maithripala Sirisena and four senior security officials guilty of negligence in having failed to act on intelligence information that they had received. They all were subjected to fines, running into millions of rupees which the officials in particular would be hard pressed to pay. But the court did not identify who was the mastermind behind the bombings. So the search for the truth must continue.
In a recent media interview Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith stated that the government investigations so far had been unsatisfactory. He said “The official channels of justice have not been fair to us all along. There has never been a serious, committed investigation into the Easter attack, its causes, its players and authors and any other forces…” He said that a similar case could also be filed in the courts against the current president once he leaves office as he currently enjoys immunity. He pointed out that the president would not hold that position for all time but the Catholic Church would continue and those who came after him would also take up the cause.
In the absence of truth, there is no closure and suspicions only grow deeper. In his most recent statements Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has got more and more outspoken. The Cardinal said during Easter Midnight Mass in Colombo, “Now the Easter Attacks. How many years? Four years. Still no justice. Still, no one knows what happened. All kinds of things are being said by people. It is important that we struggle for justice; for truth. That is Christianity.” In addition to demonstrating the unwavering resolve of the church to obtain justice, this was a clear example of how the Prevention of Terrorism Act that was in place since 1979 failed to prevent the Easter bombing despite its draconian provisions that have led to a very large number of abuses. It is tragic that the present government seems to have lost sight of this lesson and is now proposing a worse alternative in the form of the draft Anti-Terrorism Act.
The government’s announcement that it will be setting up a truth commission to look into what happened in the three decade long civil war and bring about national reconciliation, will not deal with the Easter bombing. The concept note on the truth commission specifies it will be looking at “Conflict means the conflict that took place on or after July 24, 1983, and prior to May 18, 2009. Though not elaborated upon, this is the period of the separatist insurgency by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other armed separatist groups who waged a guerrilla war. The mandate of the Commission will be, among others, the promotion of national unity, peace, rule of law, co-existence, equality with tolerance and respect for diversity, and reconciliation among the people of Sri Lanka, by establishing a truthful, accurate, impartial, complete record of the alleged damage and/or harm caused to persons or property (in the conflict)“
The period of investigation being limited to July 24, 1983 to May 18, 2009 is an indication that the truth commission’s mandate will be a limited one. It will only look at that time period in which the LTTE was the dominant Tamil militant organization. However, massive human rights violations continued to take place after the war’s end. Busloads of LTTE personnel and their families disappeared days after the war. Over 300,000 civilians were incarcerated in barbed wired camps for over six months in which many of them went missing, some who bribed themselves out and others who were taken away by the security forces. The ethnic conflict preceded the start date and continues after the end date making the mandate of the truth commission an inadequate one.
The specificity of the dates also raises a question whether only the ethnic war will be looked at by the truth commission or whether the JVP insurrection, which took place during that time frame (between 1987 and 1989) will also be investigated. A very large number of people lost their lives in that conflict which was separate from that of the ethnic conflict. The doubt arises because the formulation of the terms of reference of the truth commission has not been a public process and very much a secret one, quite unlike what happened in South Africa, which is the country that the government is seeking assistance from. In the coming days, the government may indicate what its intentions are, now that it seems to have decided to go ahead with the process.
It is clear the Easter bombing and its fallout will not be part of the mandate of the proposed truth commission. The mandate of the truth commission will only extend up to May 18, 2009, the last day of the war. The exclusion of the Easter bombing from the mandate of the truth commission may be justified on the basis that it took place a decade after the war had ended. It was also only a single event, unlike the war which continued over a very long period. But the need for a truth commission to investigate the Easter bombing cannot be ignored as the truth of what happened continues to be veiled and hidden. The puzzle then, and which remains to this day, was the motivation for the attacks and who was behind them.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s determination to ensure that the truth be found may have its origins in the belief that the Christian worshipers were made scapegoats for a deviant political agenda. The dead have no voice to demand justice, so it is the duty of the living to seek the truth. This is one of the reasons for the importance given worldwide to truth commissions to investigate controversial events of the past. Instead of working together for accountability and justice, government leaders so far have shown little or no interest in ensuring accountability of those who were responsible for the Easter attack taking place. Unfortunately, it is no different in relation to the present economic crisis. There seems to be no action to explore the making of the crisis and the failure of the government to address the issue of accountability for those who wrecked the economy and continue to be in the seats of power.
In his Easter message, President Ranil Wickremesinghe appeared responsive to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s sentiments when he said “I am very much aware of the extreme pain caused by the Easter Sunday attack being still fresh in your minds, and I share that pain. I wish to reassure you that the legal proceedings related to this tragic incident are being processed independently and impartially, without any influence. The necessary groundwork towards this end has been laid, to ensure justice for all the victims. I pledge my unwavering commitment to ensuring the security of our country, by preventing any recurrence of such heinous acts.” In addition to restating his commitment, the president can strengthen his credibility by taking steps to ensure that those who committed grave wrongs and evil, whether criminal or financial, are removed from positions of high office they do not merit.